AN IRISHWOMAN who formerly worked for the cycling team of Lance Armstrong has revealed that the team flushed $25,000 of doping down a toilet, and then dumped its contents in a field, during the 1998 Tour de France which began in Ireland.
Emma O’Reilly worked as a ‘soigneur’ – an assistant responsible for arranging cyclists’ food, clothing, transport as well as administering massages – for the US Postal Service (USPS) team between 1996 and 2000.
Her affidavit to the US Anti-Doping Agency – reported on by the Irish Times this morning – reveals frustrations among some of the team’s riders in 1997 (not including Armstrong at the time).
The team’s riders believed their then-doctor was not supplying them with enough legitimate recovery products to help them recover from particularly tough events.
However, she remembers “being aware that some riders on the team were on doping programs in 1997″, adding: “Everyone knew what was happening but I never had a conversation with with a rider in which the doping program was openly discussed”.
I did not discuss the doping programme with any of the staff members during the 1997 season, but in April of that year I did observe [an unnamed doctor] as he prepared syringes that were to be administered to the riders during the Circuit de la Sarthe [an early-season short race in France].
I recall that [the doctor] used a syringe to pull a substance out of a glass vial but do not remember the name or appearance of the substance because I had made a deliberate choice to avoid all conversations about, and involvement with, the doping activities on the team.
That season, she recalled, was the first time USPS had entered the Tour de France. All nine of its riders completed the tour, with one mechanic from another team telling O’Reilly: “You’ve got a good doctor”. The implication, she says, was that the doctor was not only supplying recovery products but banned performance enhancers.
Lance joins USPS as Le Tour comes to Dublin
The following year, 1998, was when Lance Armstrong signed for USPS – making his comeback in professional cycling shortly after beating cancer that had spread to his brain, lungs, abdomen and testicles.
It was also the year in which the Tour de France included two stages in Dublin, and a road stage between Enniscorthy and Cork. The Tour began in Dublin on July 11, though Armstrong – who was only beginning his comeback after his battle with cancer – did not participate in that year’s Tour.
One or two months previously, US cyclist George Hincapie – a member of the team – learned that O’Reilly was travelling to Belgium and asked her to pick up a package from another unnamed individual.
Upon collection she was told the package included testosterone – which “gives a rider enough energy to finish a sprint” – and that there were other prohibited substances used to regulate a cyclist’s temperature during a race.
She then travelled back to Ireland, and made arrangements to meet the USPS team when they arrived on a ferry from Belgium ahead of the beginning of the Tour de France.
The ferry was scheduled to arrive at the port after midnight, so I was surprised when customs agents showed up to meet the ferry to carry out searches of the team’s vehicles. I convinced the customs agents to leave by explaining that they would have a riot on their hands if they tried to search the trucks at 2:00am and that any search they felt was necessary could just as easily occur in the morning.
That morning word got out that Festina rider Willy Voet had been arrested while trying to carry doping products in to France from Belgium. That arrest prompted major public outcry, many police raids, and ultimately led to so many doping accusations that the 1998 Tour has since been referred to as the ‘Tour du Dopage’.
O’Reilly reported that the team doctor, Dr Pedro Celaya, was “frantic” about these developments, and remained so until the decision was taken to dump the team’s entire stock of doping products after the second time trial. By this stage the tour had left Ireland.
‘Doping products probably don’t make good fertiliser’
By this time a USPS camper van was parked in a large field close to the course at Meyrignac-l’Église, where the second time trial stage was beginning.
[An unnamed woman] who was working as a host for the US Postal Service team told me that $25,000 worth of doping products were flushed down the toilet of the team bus, and discharged into the field.
[The woman's partner, a team mechanic,] told her that Dr Celaya was terrified and wanted all of the doping products to be removed from the bus in case it was searched by the French police.
I remember saying to one of the other staff members that $25,000 worth of doping products probably does not make very good fertiliser, and that the team should come back to the field in a few years to check out the grass.
The affidavit reveals, however, that a single Thermos flask was overlooked during this dump and was kept in a fridge for the remainder of the Tour. When O’Reilly shook this flask, she “could hear vials rattling inside of it”. When she finally mentioned it to another member of staff the following month, during a separate tour, that person’s face “went pale”. The following day the Thermos had been removed.
Celaya stepped down as team doctor at the end of that season, moving to the ONCE team. He was played by Luis Garcia del Moral.
The affidavit continues, and sees O’Reilly recall being asked by Lance Armstrong to dump a package which he did not want to dispose of at his team hotel.
“From Lance’s explanation and the shape and feel of the package I assumed that the package contained syringes that had been used by Lance during the Tour of the Netherlands,” an event that had just concluded.
“If they had been used to administer legitimate recovery products then there is no reason they could not have been disposed of by a doctor or trainer at the team hotel.”
A promotion – on one condition – and a cross-border journey
The following year O’Reilly was made head soigneur, a position she accepted on the explicit condition that “it would not require me to become involved in the team’s doping program.” This was an accepted condition of her promotion.
That May, during a pre-season training session in the French Pyrenees, Armstrong asked O’Reilly to drive to the team base in Valencia, Spain “to collect something from the team doctor”. He requested that O’Reilly’s then-boyfriend not be told about the purpose of her trip, though she told him anyway.
They stayed in one of two houses in the suburb of Piles which were rented by USPS. While she was there, packing things for the team, team director Johan Bruynell came to the house and “discretely [sic] handed me a small pill bottle” containing “about twenty small white tablets”.
These were brought back across the French border without incident, and was dropped off to Armstrong in a McDonald’s car park in Nice.
When Lance reached my vehicle I discretely handed him the pill bottle so that Kristin or anybody else who happened to be observing our interaction would not be able to tell that a handoff that occurred. [...]
To this day, Lance and I have never discussed the trip to Spain, the pills, or what the pills were for.
A month later, during a race in France, O’Reilly was giving Armstrong a massage when he mentioned having a low level of hematocrit (the volume of red blood cells in the blood). This would be problematic because red blood cells are necessary to carry oxygen around the body.
When I asked him what he was going to do about his low hematocrit, Lance just laughed and said, “You know, Emma. What everybody does.” I understood Lance’s response to mean that he intended to use EPO in order to raise his hematocrit levels.
A syringe, a bruise, a positive test, and a ‘saddle sore’
Three weeks later, and just days before the start of that year’s Tour de France, Armstrong asked O’Reilly if he could borrow her makeup to cover a bruise in his left arm. He said this bruise had been caused by a syringe. O’Reilly would not let him use her own make-up, but bought a variety of concealers for him to use.
The ruse worked – the bruising was not spotted by doctors doing a pre-Tour medical exam.
A few days later, Armstrong tested positive for a corticosteroid. There was “no sense of panic” about this on the part of the USPS team until they received word that reporters from the French newspaper Le Monde were going to break the story.
O’Reilly was giving Armstrong a massage when he was talking to two unnamed others and came up with an explanation for a positive sample. They agreed to claim that Armstrong was suffering from saddle sores and needed a corticosteroid cream for this.
The affidavit says a backdated prescription was needed for this story, and one was obtained from Dr del Moral, the new team doctor.
It was clear to me after the meeting that Lance’s positive sample was not caused by the medical treatment of a saddle sore, and that the only reason he obtained a prescription was to excuse his improper use of a prohibited substance.
Lance acknowledged that I had been present for a significant moment in his cycling career when he told me, “Now, Emma, you enough to bring me down.”
Armstrong won his first Tour de France that month. It was the first of Armstrong’s seven consecutive victories on Le Tour.
That season saw O’Reilly’s relationship with team director Bruynell break down, and she only worked on the events in the 2000 season where Bruynell was absent – meaning she missed the 2000 Tour de France and other major events.
She quit USPS entirely at the end of the 2000 season, and has not worked in cycling since then. She is now a self-employed massage therapist based in Manchester, England.